Steady GDP Growth Target Reflects Measured Derisking

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers his work report at the first session of the 13th National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 5, 2018. Photo credit: Xinhua.

THE OFFICIAL GDP growth target for 2018 is ‘around 6.5%’, the same as last year, when the outcome was a forecast 6.9%, Prime Minister Li Keqiang (above) told the National Peoples Congress in his annual work report. However, the aspirational text from last year on the upside of the target has been dropped for this.

More significantly, the deficit target has been cut for the first time since 2012, to 2.6% of GDP from 3.0%, and monetary policy is to remain neutral, suggesting a tightening of the fiscal screw as authorities’ preferred way to de-risk the financial system.

If the 6.5% growth target is hit, China will be comfortably on course to achieve the goal set in 2010 of doubling per capita GDP by 2020 and thus making it a ‘moderately well-off society’. Growth needs to average only 6.3% between 2018 and 2020 for the target to be achieved.

Less certain is the extent to which quality of growth will replace quantity, as advertised at October’s quinquennial Party Congress. Li repeated the intention to reduce debt-fuelled investment, pollution, poverty and industrial overcapacity, in line with the Party line, but a 6.5% growth target would imply more economic stimulus or less fiscal drag than might otherwise be expected under the managed long-term slowdown and rebalancing of the economy.

That continues incrementally. He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said on the sidelines of the NPC that consumption is likely to contribute around 60% to economic growth in 2018, up from 58.8% last year and barely 56% five years ago.

He also identified plate glass, cement and electrolytic aluminium as among the next round of target industries for capacity cuts.

The new GDP growth target also implies that the pace of structural financial reform will remain cautious, as it has been for some time. Deleveraging via cracking down on corporations, as happened to Anbang and more recently CEFC China Energy, will continue to be a way of removing excess financial risk from the system while serving the twin goal of aligning private sector foreign direct investment with the national interest.

Similarly, on the debt issue, Finance Minister Xiao Jie indicates that administrative action will be taken against irregularities in local government financing. Local governments account for 55% of the combined debt of central and local governments of  29.95 trillion yuan ($4.75 trillion) at the end of last year.

While some progress has been made on both reducing local government debt levels and structural reforms to local government financing, local governments remain overly dependent on land sales, with the concomitant risk of abuse.

However, a trade war, depending on its severity and duration, might make all that moot.

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